A Child's Age and Stage of Development Make a DifferenceFootnote 2

Source: Because Life Goes On... Helping Children and Youth Live With Separation and Divorce, Public Health Agency of Canada , 1994. Reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2006.

Although all children, pre-teens and teenagers share many of the same developmental goals and needs - such as a deep need to trust other people and their world - their particular age and stage of development are major factors in determining their reaction to any situation. Awareness of how children and teenagers grow and develop can help you predict how your children's behaviour may change and the kind of support they will need.

This section of the booklet is designed to help you:

  • better understand the developmental needs and goals in each stage of your child's life
  • anticipate and respond to your child's needs
  • identify signs that your child may be feeling increased stress.

For each stage of development - from infancy to adolescence - you will find specific information about:

  • divorce
  • how children's development affects their feelings and reactions about separation and what you can do to help your children adapt and grow
  • how to modify your parenting style as children grow up.

You may find it helpful to review the information contained under each stage of development, regardless of your children's ages. Reading the entire section may help you gain an understanding of how children change as they develop, helping you to anticipate your children's needs and changing behaviours. Also, every child is unique: the way children react and the way you can respond may not "fit" their age categories precisely. Keep in mind that some feelings and needs occur during several stages of a child's development. And finally, remember that what works for one child at one stage may be equally helpful for another child at a different stage.

Infants and Toddlers (Birth-2 years)

There is incredible growth in children's development during the first two years of life. From birth, children quickly learn to understand a great deal of what is being said and happening around them. Physical development also proceeds rapidly, from crawling to running. Although these changes give children a sense of independence, they still rely almost totally on their parents. Infants and toddlers may become upset when the parent who takes care of them the most often leaves, if only to move into another room in the home. Being apart from this parent for just a few hours, even when the child is left with someone familiar, can be stressful.

During this critical stage of development, infants and toddlers need plenty of stimulation and loving attention. When babies receive warm, responsive care, they are more likely to feel safe and secure with the adults who take care of them. Very young children can sense the feelings of an upset parent and can become upset themselves. At any age, children are very vulnerable to the anxious and troubled feelings of their parents.

Despite rapid progress in learning to think, infants and toddlers still have a limited understanding of their world. Changes in routine and conflict between parents are bewildering and painful for very young children. Their lives can feel unpredictable, confusing and at times frightening after their parents separate.

Parental Conflict Is Harmful

Many parents don't realize how upsetting continued conflict with their former partner can be to infants and toddlers. You may assume that because very young children cannot understand the arguments they hear, they will be unaffected by them. In fact, although toddlers rarely understand the details of angry words between parents, they feel the emotions very strongly. It is important that you try to keep a calm, positive attitude in your child's presence.

Separation from Parents Is Difficult

Separation from a parent is difficult no matter what the circumstances. Attachment to a caregiver is key to an infant's healthy development. As long as there are no prolonged separations or serious threats to a baby's health, the baby will form an attachment to the main caregivers. Therefore, maintaining a strong bond with both parents is important for infants and toddlers. Frequent contact with the parent who no longer lives at home can help young children feel more secure. Parents who do not live with their children need to be patient with toddlers, giving them time to become reacquainted with each stay. Sometimes, the toddler's initial shyness is misinterpreted as a lack of love. The parent is understandably hurt and discouraged and may see the toddler less and less, which makes the problem worse. More contact - not less - may help. It may also be helpful for the child to keep a photograph of the other parent. Both parents should do their best to help the toddler feel comfortable with parental visits.

Signs of Possible Trouble

Watch for signs that indicate a young child is experiencing difficulties - waking during the night, wetting the bed, not eating, aggressive behaviour, loss of language skills, loss of toilet training. (See below: "Reactions to Stress") Infants and toddlers get angry when they are frustrated. Expect temper tantrums when schedules are disrupted, when enjoyable activities are cut short or are less frequent, and when they must wait to be fed, read to, cuddled or played with. Other indicators of distress include fearfulness and changes in mood, such as over-reaction to minor frustrations, withdrawal and listlessness.

Follow a Routine

Infants and toddlers need consistency and predictability in their daily life. Once parenting and child care arrangements have been made, it is up to the parent to maintain consistency in the child's schedule:

  • the time of day the child is dropped off and picked up should be kept as regular as possible
  • routines such as mealtimes, bedtimes and early morning rituals reinforce children's feelings of comfort and security
  • try not to change a baby or toddler's personal environment (familiar surroundings, toys and blankets).

Preschoolers (3-5 years)

The preschool years bring rapid intellectual, physical and emotional growth. The developmental goal of a preschooler is to become independent.

Despite their considerable physical and emotional achievements, preschoolers have a limited ability to understand separation and divorce. For example, because they understand relationships in self-centred terms, children may feel that they are the cause of certain events. Children often believe that a parent's worries and anxieties, and perhaps even the divorce itself, are their fault.

Active Imaginations

Children between the ages of 3 and 5 also find it hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is imaginary. This means that they may become confused. Children may think that they are being abandoned by their mother, unloved by their father or that they are being punished for angry feelings. Preschool children are very curious and will actively try to understand the changes in their lives. They now have the ability to try to find answers themselves, and will ask "Why?" "How come?" and "What if?" This ability to understand some events may add to their worries.

Preschoolers are fond of listening to and creating their own "tall tales." They love to exaggerate stories, and they often believe the story they have just told. Parents should not confuse this with lying; in fact, you can use these stories as a way to exchange information and build better understanding.Footnote 3

The Need for Mother and Father

A preschool child's sense of social and emotional independence is not fully developed. Preschoolers continue to rely on their parents and a secure home base to feel safe. At this stage, children need nurturing from both parents - they are beginning to develop a relationship with their father that is different from the one with their mother. Children experience a significant loss when one parent is less involved in their lives. Not only will they often miss that parent's presence and affection, but some of their physical and emotional needs may not be met. They often have overwhelming fears that both parents will leave them. As with infants and toddlers, preschoolers need lots of visits with the parent who has moved away. Parents need to keep this in mind when they develop their parenting plan.

Personality Is a Major Factor

Personality is a major factor in development and plays an important role in a child's reaction to divorce. By the time children are 3 to 5 years of age, most parents can recognize the ways their children cope with stress. Some children sulk, others "talk back" or get angry, still others become overly submissive or obedient. It may be helpful to understand that when children are unable to express emotion and cope with stress in their usual ways, they try different approaches. Children who are usually outspoken or talkative may suddenly become withdrawn, and those who are usually submissive or obedient may suddenly become uncooperative.

Parents need to resist any temptation to let a submissive or obedient child become their caretaker or to ignore the child who makes fewer demands. It is also important to resist simply punishing an angry and disagreeable child instead of trying to deal with his or her underlying unhappiness.

Reactions to Stress

A young child's distress is often shown by returning to behaviours that have been outgrown. Problem areas may include:

  • sleep - a return to bed wetting or recurrent bad dreams, avoiding going to bed
  • eating - eating less or more than usual or refusing favourite foods
  • physical activity - giving up drawing or riding a tricycle
  • language - returning to baby talk
  • emotional development - reverting to crying, clinging; or thumb sucking
  • social relationships - refusing to play with other children.

Preschoolers can display a wide range of emotional behaviour in a short time. Anger is the most common way for preschoolers to show pain and distress. Hitting, kicking, throwing things, pinching and spitting at other children are common ways for young children to express anger. These expressions of anger toward friends or brothers and sisters often represent the child's disturbance or anger at the separation or divorce.

Fearfulness is also a sign of anxiety or tension in preschoolers, particularly when it is in response to events the child used to feel comfortable with. Troubled preschoolers may also show sadness, withdrawal or lack of energy.

Many of these feelings and responses in preschoolers can be related just to growing up. They do not, in themselves, indicate trouble. However, if they are unusually intense, last a long time or interfere significantly with a child's life, they may be signs of distress.

Reducing Stress

You can help your preschooler adapt to separation and divorce by reducing the sources of your child's distress, and by providing reassurance, stability and comfort. Talking regularly about their feelings, fears and fantasies helps your children to work through their private, internal sources of distress. This requires you to listen closely to your preschoolers, observe their actions and respond by communicating with care and understanding.

Child Care Arrangements

Knowing with confidence who will take care of them, and where, provides preschoolers with feelings of stability and security. You can help by:

  • selecting a regular setting for child care
  • letting the child take familiar objects to the child care setting, such as stuffed animals, a prized blanket or toys
  • maintaining a regular schedule for dropping off and picking up your child at the child care setting
  • keeping consistent morning, dinnertime and bedtime routines.

If at all possible, it is helpful for you to keep your existing child care arrangements, at least during the beginning stages of separation and divorce. A familiar routine creates a feeling of security for children. When this schedule is disrupted, preschoolers may become upset. If changes in the daily schedule are unavoidable or necessary, you should explain the reasons for the changes.

You can also help your preschoolers adjust by going with them to visit the new child care setting before they are dropped off for the first time.

Date modified: